Elisabeth Moss on All That Smoking in ‘The Veil’ Premiere, and the Spy Thriller’s Pivotal Scene That Sets Up What’s to Come

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SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers from the first two episodes of “The Veil,” now streaming on Hulu.

No cigarette goes unsmoked in the premiere of FX’s new series “The Veil” — and that was all part of Elisabeth Moss’ plan.

In the new series from “Peaky Blinders” creator Steven Knight, Moss plays a woman named (for now) Imogen Salter, an undercover MI6 spy who is tasked with doing what the age of technological surveillance and espionage can’t do: use human intuition and skill to get information out of a target. In her sights is Adilah (Yumna Marwan), a woman living in a refugee camp in Syria, who may or may not be the Djinn al Raqqa, a high-ranking ISIS commander.

Working with Malik (Dali Benssalah), a French DGSE (Directorate-General for External Security) agent back in Paris, Imogen poses as an NGO worker to break Adilah out of the camp and earn her trust, all in the hopes of getting information from her about a rumored ISIS plot to detonate a bomb in a major American city in a week. In order to do that, Imogen must commit to this latest undercover character, and Moss made the decision to have Imogen constantly smoking in the first episode. Not because she needs the nicotine, but because it has an effect on Adilah.

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“It is to kind of ingratiate her with Adilah, and push her buttons,” Moss tells Variety. “It is a way of connecting with Adilah while also turning her off. It is really smart, because the way of getting Adilah out of her shell is making her come out in anger and judgment about the smoking. It was a little fun, cool spy move.”

Elisabeth Moss as Imogen Salter, Yumna Marwan as Adilah El Idrissi.
Courtesy of FX

Over the course of the two-episode premiere, now streaming on Hulu, Imogen and Adilah go on a road trip, quietly crossing borders toward Paris where Adilah can be reunited with her 10-year-old daughter. Imogen is taking a risk moving Adliah while still investigating whether this woman is a young mother caught in a case of mistaken identity, or an influential leader being given the chance to carry out a devastating attack.

Imgoen thinks she gets her answer to that question during an intense stop in Istanbul, where they meet with a forger who can create a passport for Adilah to get into France. She will be traveling under the visa of a singer and belly dancer, so before he hands over her papers, he forces her to sing to prove she can keep up the act. Breaking out into a beautiful medley, Imogen suddenly seems convinced she is traveling with a terrorist, who is able to adapt to her environment no matter the situation. In other words, she sees herself in Adilah.

Talking with Variety about the two-episode premiere, Moss, along with her producing partner Denise Di Novi, shared why the moment is critical to setting up the rest of the show and how Moss’ past as a dancer informed the most physical role of her career.

By nature, Imogen is unknowable to the people around her. Was she that way to you? She is kind of the epitome of an onion you have to peel to understand.

Elisabeth Moss: The onion analogy is something I used many, many times. Look, I mean, to me, I felt like I actually knew her very well, and felt much closer to her than some other characters I have played. In one of the first conversations I had with Steve [Knight], he described her to me and what her skills as a spy were, and I said, “So she’s an actor?”

Everything he said to me sounded so familiar. And what I mean by that is, I always hate when people say that actors are such good liars because, sure, I know what they mean. But for me, when I am acting, I am actually trying to be more honest than anything else. I’m actually trying not to lie — that’s kind of the point and that’s what Imogen does and what she is so good at. So when she adopts this NGO worker character, which is what it is, she is acting. She’s playing the part. She is tapping into this other part of herself. So I was like, “Great!” That’s my day job. That is my bread and butter. So I didn’t feel like she was unknowable. I felt like she was more known to me than other times I have played characters.

Is part of that character in the premiere being a chain smoker? Because you smoke four cigarettes in that episode, and try to light up another one.

Moss: Totally, and I’m so glad people pick up on that. It is such a fun trick, because most people around her don’t catch on that she is not a smoker. She is only doing it in this one character. And it is not just to play the character. It is to kind of ingratiate her with Adilah and push her buttons. It is a way of connecting with Adilah while also turning her off. It is really smart because the way of getting Adilah out of her shell is making her come out in anger and judgment about the smoking. It was a little fun, cool spy move.

You don’t really notice it at first, but then she starts to light up in moments that real smokers would know is not enough time to smoke an actual cigarette.

Moss: That is so observant! I love that!

Denise Di Novi: There were so many little things that Elisabeth did with the character that made her even more fascinating than she already was on the page.

Moss: Originally, I think she smoked through the whole project, and then we decided to make her smoke only as the NGO worker.

Di Novi: If you can’t tell, we were quite obsessed with this character.

In these first two episodes, has Imogen presented anything truly authentic about herself that the audience can latch onto as the truth?

Di Novi: I think from the beginning, the original concept that Steve Knight had was that you never know if anybody in the show is telling the truth. In an organic way, because of the kind of actor Elisabeth is, the incredible thing that she accomplished is that there are moments where, even though she is lying, she is authentic. That is what is so fascinating to me. She has a line in the show where she says, “The best lies are mostly true,” and another time she says, “I am more honest with Adilah than I have ever been with anyone else.”

So I think it is psychologically fascinating that you can connect with another person and reveal yourself even when you are not being completely truthful. That’s what we are seeing her do in this episode. I don’t know that I have ever really seen that before. I think it is up to the audience to discover what’s true.

In the first two episodes, we get a sense of what she is capable of. Elisabeth, you’ve had physical roles before including “The Invisible Man” just a few years ago. Have roles like that helped prepare you for this because Imogen puts her whole body into her job?

Moss: Besides “The Veil,” “The Invisible Man” was by far the most physical role I have done. I’ve done a fair amount of stunts and fighting, and a hell of a lot of running. So much running! I don’t know why I choose characters who just run and run, even though I’m not a runner. But what’s different, which was really fun for me with “The Veil,” was that I have always been on the defensive. But this time, I was on the offensive.

This time, I got to play somebody who trained to fight and who is skillful at it, and isn’t just defending herself. It allowed me to learn a new set of skills, and let me actually look like I knew what I was doing. That was totally new for me, and it was much more challenging because you can’t just react to a punch in the way you would as a normal human. You actually have to act in a way that shows you have taken a punch before. So it was harder, but I loved it. I’m a former dancer, so it was fun to use my body in that way.

Just how formative to the rest of the series is this road trip that Imogen and Adilah take in the premiere?

Moss: It is a really smart construct, to get them to be stuck sitting next to each other for what is actually only an episode and a half. It feels like they are on the road so much longer. But it is just so meaningful, and there is just so much connection in those moments between them. I think it was just a really fantastically smart thing to do on Steve’s part. But Denise, you were much more involved early on with Steve.

Di Novi: I think from a practical and pragmatic level, the intention was to do a sweeping international global story. Starting in that environment that is so kind of bleak and minimalist. It sets the table that, first of all, Imogen is the kind of person who would step into that world fearlessly and drive this crazy mountain road to a refugee camp in Syria and find a way to get this woman out of the camp and be alone in a car with her. What a great set up? In that car, we get a sense of what Adilah has been through. What has brought her to this place? And the desperation to get to this place and almost nearly die for it.

After the scene where Adliah sings in Episode 2, Imogen seems to make up her mind that she has found the terrorist leader she’s looking for –– even though her male intelligence officer counterparts aren’t so sure. Why do you think that moment is what convinced her that Adilah is the Djinn?

Moss: That is such a pivotal moment for me, for sure. That is so much about what Steve did with these scripts and this show, because he wrote this story about these two women. And yes, it has this giant international and political thriller backdrop, which is very exciting. But there is also this sort of Trojan-horse story of these two humans in the middle of it. I think Imogen has an instinct from the beginning that there is something about this woman that she understands. But it is that moment when Adilah sings that she really sees this other human, and the pain and the loss and the longing and all of these things that Yumna Marwan so beautifully imbues that moment and that character with. She is just so phenomenal in this role.

I think in that moment, Imogen is genuinely moved by this person, and what they are pulling from the inside to sing this song. And this is the moment where it clicks in that there is something about this woman that I get and I know and I understand, and I’m going to go down this path and on this journey with her. It is the pivotal moment that Steve builds on for the rest of the show.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This post was originally published on Variety

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